His First Swim

Leslie van de Ligt

Sherwood Park, Canada

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This little guy had ventured a ways from the rest of the brood and gave me a prime chance to catch this shot. So very cute and so obviously very brand new. So very soft and downy as you can see. Curious about everything around him and checking it out. Mama Mallard was soon on his tail feathers so he could join his siblings. Taken at the lake in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

By late March or early April, the first of the Mallards are back on the prairies, the place in Canada where they are the most numerous. At this time, lakes and ponds are usually frozen, and only meltwater fills the hollows of pasture lands and fields. The early arrivals are usually mated pairs.

The female, accompanied by the male, searches for a territory. Most often, she will choose a territory close to where she was born. Some females return year after year to the same site.

The nesting site may be close to a pond but is frequently at some distance and may even be far from water. Normally on the ground, the nest is little more than a depression lined with bits of rushes, grass, weeds, or other material close at hand. It is usually in good cover such as thick grass, or under a buckbrush, brier rose, or other prairie shrub. The eggs, which with different birds may vary in colour from dull green to almost white, are laid daily. Up to 15 may be deposited, but the usual number is between 8 and 12.

Incubation, or warming of the eggs until they hatch, does not start until the last egg has been laid. This ensures that all the ducklings will hatch at approximately the same time. During the laying period, and particularly in the early stages of incubation, the female sheds down, or fine feathers, from her belly to line the nest. This grey down, with white centres, is pulled over the eggs when the duck leaves the nest to feed. It not only supplies warmth but hides the eggs from crows, magpies, and other predators, which are quick to find uncovered eggs.

The female does all the incubating, which takes around 28 days. The ducklings emerge as handsome little balls of down. Their clove-brown backs are relieved by four yellow patches. Faces and underparts are also yellow, with the exception of a dark ear spot and a brown line through the eye.

Mallards may re-nest up to three or four times if their nests are destroyed. Each successive nest will have fewer eggs. However, Mallards do not raise more than a single brood of ducklings each year.

As soon as the ducklings are dry, the female leads them to the nearest water. This may be a long and hazardous journey. Although the female may have nested near a pothole or slough full of spring meltwater, much of this water may have evaporated, leaving nothing but drying mud. On overland trips, straggling ducklings may get lost in the grass or be picked up by predators.

The Mallard is an excellent mother, however. She will stop at frequent intervals to collect and brood, or warm, her young. If surprised by an intruder, she is likely to go flapping and squawking across the ground, as if injured. This feigned injury may not fool a human, but undoubtedly lures predators away.

Once on the water, the female leads her brood to feeding areas. The young find their own food, which at first probably consists of small crustaceans, or hard-shelled creatures, such as water fleas, insects, and tiny plants like duckweed.

The young gradually lose their down and grow their feathers. In about 10 weeks they have assumed a plumage that is much like that of the female. By that time, the female has abandoned them.

After the breeding season Mallards moult, or shed old feathers, into what is known as an eclipse plumage. The males are the first to undergo this moult.

The males remain on their territories for about the first 10 days of incubation. After that, they desert their mates. They move to larger marshes, where they lose their brilliant breeding plumage and become more similar to the hen, or female. All their flight feathers are shed at once, and for about a month the birds are flightless. They hide in the reeds until their new feathers are grown.

Canon Rebel XSI Sigma DC Lens 55-200 mm

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Artwork Comments

  • SusanP-MI
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  • Photos - Pauline Wherrell
  • Leslie van de Ligt
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